AIA Design Award Jurors Speak Out on Design, Awards and More

AIA Design Award Jurors Speak Out on Design, Awards and More

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Ryan Flener
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Ryan Flener

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AIA Design Award Jurors Speak Out on Design, Awards and More

The AIA Dallas Design Awards recognizes outstanding work by Dallas architects, both in the metropolitan area and across the country. The purpose of the awards program is to honor the architects, clients, and consultants who work together to achieve design excellence.

Recently, Ryan Flener of the AIA Dallas’ Communications Committee met with the three jurors of the built entries: Dan Rockhill, John Ronan, AIA, and Jennifer Yoos, FAIA. Rockhill is principal of Rockhill and Associates and the JL Constant Distinguished Professor of Architecture at the University of Kansas, where he also serves as executive director of Studio 804. Ronan is the founding principal of John Ronan Architects and a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Yoos is a professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota and partner at VJAA Architects in Minneapolis.

Here are highlights of the interview. Plus, a video of the jurors expressing some of these comments is available on our Conversations blog.

Each of you practice and teach architecture at high levels and each of you have been on both sides of this jury process. What do you see is the value of these types of design programs and what experiences do you bring to define a successful project?

Rockhill: What I enjoy, is the confirmation of a belief system that is difficult to create but there is a common language that we all enjoy. It doesn’t reveal itself until we go through the process. In the end, I know I feel good and I think my colleagues do as well about the choices we made.

Yoos: We all know how difficult it is to do good work so we’re looking for things we admire. We know that every process has issues and problems. We like to see work that transcends the reality and difficulties of a project; to see really coherent, clear ideas that are strong, smart and well detailed and executed.

Ronan: I look for a clearly stated concept and “the how, the why.” How does the way this project was designed reinforce a concept? But to your larger question about the value of juries, I think one of the things I get out of it is trying to detect a certain something that is of the local culture or the local area and what that thing is and whether it can be amplified. The world is coming together and becoming one in the same. There’s a lot of homogenizing, so is there a certain ethos or essence of a place that comes out in a work? That’s sort of a self-agenda I have when I’m looking at these things.

Rockhill: Well I think that’s punctuated, that whole approach, by the fact that there are clearly fresh ideas and I think that’s what is special about a jury for design awards. There are very competent, very well executed, beautiful projects that are submitted; but there’s that little edge of just wanting to hang your toes out a little bit further than anybody else that gets a second look. To think, “You know I haven’t quite seen that before.”

Yoos: I think another aspect is being on a jury as a group. I know we all looked at the projects independently and came up with a short list. When you come together you realize how many projects you missed that others understood better and picked up on and you start to see through a different lens. So the back and forth, where you’re arguing and working through what your criteria are, is a really nice process.

After reviewing these projects, did you see evidence of current trends or challenges in our industry? Were these repetitions part of a local or global phenomenon?

Ronan: It was very evident which projects were done by large firms and which projects were done by small firms. That’s a trend within the industry and profession that you’re getting this kind of bifurcation--that larger firms are thinking larger and small design firms are thinking small. I think that’s a challenge that needs to be addressed.

Rockhill: One thing I detected was what I would call abuse of the word “vernacular.” I think it’s a little overrated, at least the way it’s been used. It creates a warm and fuzzy feeling that everyone feels good about, but in the end is pretty insincere, at least in many of the ones I looked at. And I don’t pretend to have the answers to this, but it seemed to be a little too overt, very quick to grab onto something, very easy to justify the decisions that follow. I would have rather seen that vernacular tortured a little bit more, rather than accepted so casually.

Yoos: John used the phrase “a project benefitted from a modest budget.” I think that’s a really important concept that came out of a lot of these projects. You start to see the restraint that comes out of having limited resources. It forces you to have clearer ideas, a more limited palette of materials, more logical detailing. You understand that you can’t do everything that occurred to you in that project and you save something for later. There were a lot of projects that, even though they were in modest budgets, had high ambitions.

What did you learn from this experience, and what will you take back to your respective hometowns (Chicago, IL; Norman, OK; and Minneapolis, MN) to influence your practice?

Ronan: I’ve never been to Dallas before so this is the first time seeing it. I learned something about cities. Dallas strikes me as a place of special moments or episodes, but nothing tying it together. When we talk about urbanism, and making the contemporary city, it’s more about the relationship between things rather than things themselves. I get the sense that in Dallas you almost pick up the pieces and shuffle them around and put them back down on the chess board, and you might not know they have been shuffled, or might even have come up with a better combination. So I’m going to take that critical lens and go back and apply it to Chicago and see how Chicago fares. My trip here has helped me think about the contemporary city and what the challenges there are in making a great city.

Rockhill: I was surprised about the lack of residency in the immediate downtown. I tried to find a place to get a cup of coffee this morning not called Starbucks and I walked until I was desperate, came back, and had to buy something at Starbucks. There’s just nothing else. I would expect there to be a little mom-and-pop grocery or anything. I think of great cities that I’ve been to where it’s almost easy to find those kinds of places, but there was nothing. I think if there’s anything any downtown could use, it would be a lot of people as opposed to people just staying overnight. The city seems clean and vibrant, but lacks that kind of fabric of life.

Yoos: Yesterday we had a really great tour from the AIA, a walking tour of downtown. We learned about the history of the area and all the different periods. It’s really interesting to see what happened here in the ‘70s, what happened in the ‘80s, what happened in the ‘90s, and what’s happened in the last decade. It’s shocking. You start to see this slow evolution. I pretty much walked the whole downtown area over the last few days and it’s a really compact, walkable city. What’s missing is the ground plane and the fabric. There are also these really interesting moments of these sunken gardens and lower level and upper level spaces. The layers of the city are really interesting but the connections are just starting to appear. It seems like you’re slowly critiquing what’s happening and learning from it and starting to apply it. It seems like, in 10 years, we might have a totally different reaction to the city. This is exciting to see for my own city because we have a lot of the same questions, a lot of the same interests. We have a lot of those same multilevel conditions, some of the same tendencies towards iconic, well-known buildings or buildings by well-known architects that become objects in a field.